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Thursday, January 12, 2006

'Cause This Is Thriller: “GI Julia” Persona Grata on Channel 5
Makeup Gasfest Dispels Fears of Big Brother

A specter is haunting Channel 5 — the specter of censorship. Or is it? On balance, it’s now more likely that fans of Yuliya Tymoshenko and media activists may heave a sigh of relief. The sort of terror with which they digested Ukraine’s No 1 open-minded news channel last Sunday may safely be shelved.

The bitter “flashback” pill presented itself last Sunday night when Yuliya Tymoshenko didn’t make it to the Chas Pik (Rush Hour) talk show on Channel 5 as announced. Regardless of the incident’s root cause, among many viewers it did evoke not-too-distant memories of a sheepish media community in the heyday of the Kuchma regime, when the notorious temnyku ruled supreme. On a night which concluded a week of holidays in Ukraine, Tymoshenko’s appearance promised to gather a wide audience: Few would want to miss the Lady of Maidan in a rhetorically rich ritual of torching Naftogaz for the deal it has signed with Gazprom to end the pricing dispute. Expecting to gain a few extra rating points, the channel had hyped the show all through the day, running alerts in its text line. But when, as the superhit of the 80s has it, “Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand,” something else actually happens. Tymo shows up at the door only to be told that the show is off the air. “‘Cause this is thriller, thriller night,” Jacko would sing.

Following the incident, Yuliya Tymoshenko issued a statement describing it as an act of censorship. She also expressed empathy for the talent, who, she noted, had no say in the decision. Channel 5, the glorious icebreaker of the Orange Revolution — in what had been a North Pole’s worth of Big Brother-style propaganda — responded with a press release of its own. Clinging to its Kanal Chesnykh Novyn (News You Can Trust) brand, Channel 5 took pains to redeem its image and discount Yuliya’s side of the story. The statement cited “matchmaking” failure as the cause. According to Channel 5, within minutes of the show’s airing, no counterpart could be found for Yuliya to comply with the show’s one host/two guests format. Not the strongest of arguments, if you apply a healthy degree of skepticism to it. Aren’t they supposed to have a backup counterpart should any such contingency arise? In fact, they had one at the ready: Naftogaz CEO Ivchenko, who had represented Ukraine in the negotiations. But the problem was, he could only be reached by phone, which would have created an unfair publicity advantage for Tymoshenko had the program been aired, the press release warns This would have put Channel 5 out of tune with its policy and in conflict with a recent piece of election legislation. Nevertheless, struggling to build goodwill, Channel 5 reissued its invitation to Yuliya Tymoshenko, welcoming her as early as Monday. That says it all. Or does it?

Just a few more thought-provoking facts, figures, and speculations. Few observers believe that no link exists between Channel 5 and Petro Poroshenko. (He has repeatedly denied ownership.) Poro and Tymo, then-NSC chief and then-PM, respectively, clashed in breathtaking turf battles, multiplying the cabinet's economic policy flaws. Ultimately, a toplevel whistleblowing act set off in the “orange big bang,” — when Yu the umpire exercised the “all out” option, firing the cabinet last September. Poro’s status as a key figure in Yushchenko’s inner circle and a major campaign contributor made cronyism the talk of the town, costing the Yushchenko administration dearly in terms of approval ratings. (The court has found no evidence of corruption.) However, at the Nasha Ukraina (NU) convention last November, a group of party members acutely aware of his political karma made an attempt to purge him, without gaining enough support, though. Poroshenko entered an emotional “not guilty” plea with the convention and vigorously set out to reinvent his image. With no love lost between former allies and a perilous parliamentary campaign approaching, Yuliya Tymoshenko's archrival called for reunion. Perhaps a mixture of regret and common sense, he launched a series of serenades but failed to captivate the audience. By and large, the electoral benefits of reunion were lost on both sides of the “orange curtain,” for the road from family to factionalism was paved with unbridled ego. The unshed blood of Maidan turned out no thicker than the upcoming vote, and the heroes went their separate ways.

Meanwhile, the enemies of Maidan have been getting together, inspired by the refreshening swing of Ukraine's pendulum of public opinion. Santa (Moscow, Russia) smiled on the bad boys, “You guys did a fantastic job writing letters. I'm cutting off those gas supplies now. So when your chimneys freeze over, it means I'm coming to your town. Ho-ho-ho!”

The gas impasse and its resolution presented a publicity windfall for all interest groups out there who had been scanning the political horizon for campaign fodder. Once the details of the deal surfaced, Yuliya Tymoshenko mounted a vicious attack on Naftogaz. “GI Julia” — as she may be called based on GI Jane, a blockbuster starring Demi Moore — fired sound bites round after round, blasting the deal as “betrayal of Ukraine's interests” made evident by its grossly unfair terms: (1) failure to secure a decent long-term price, while locking into a long-term transit fee; (2) lack of transparency in RosUkrEnergo’s credentials, and (3) the agreement's monopoly effect. Her retrospective solution: Stand tall, sue the bastards. Given Yuliya's “energy empress” background and her “intra-orange opposition” experience, Channel 5 — whose freedom-of-speech record is unmatched by any other media outlet — could hardly resist her charms and brilliance. Her watchdog agenda has magnetized Maidaners who became alienated and disenchanted by a firestorm of scandals engulfing Yushchenko’s inner circle. Building on this “orange blues” movement, she has blossomed into a force to be reckoned with and a barometer to be looked at. Having her weigh in on the issue in a live broadcast would score a hit. That said, her grasp of energy issues, amplified by the artistic and militant quality of her discourse, posed quite a bit of challenge to a man’s world, threatening to unleash an Armageddon on Naftogaz CEO Ivchenko, who trumpeted the deal as a coup.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In Ukraine, beauty is also a well-recognized acronym that aptly mimics the word beauty — Blok Yuliyi Tymoshenko. In the eyes of discerning viewers, Yuliya’s “armed and dangerous” persona carried the risk of a credibility blow to the Nasha Ukraina campaign. Therefore, the Sunday incident may have raised suspicions of an attempt by Channel 5 management to blacklist her. A case for a conflict of interest between her newsworthiness and “welcomeness” on Channel 5 could be made, should the party affiliation of the presumptive owner be taken into account.
Anyway, the cold breeze of Big Brother's reincarnation on Channel 5 has now subsided. With a makeup “gasfest” show aired on Monday night, the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm, or, at worst, a calculated misstep with a 24-hour expiration period.

As expected, the show pitted the “unemployed” PM, live in the studio, against Naftogaz “loyalist” CEO Ivchenko, speaking on the phone, in a heated debate on how the Yushchenko administration had handled the gas dispute.

The show kicks off with a surprise: NU Member of Parliament Kseniya Lyapina, who heads the Cabinet Council on Entrepreneurship, joins the show in videoconference mode. And here comes the funny part: Actually, Kseniya hails from an adjacent studio! Roman Skrypin, the cool, calm, and collected host of the show, explained that she had been scheduled to appear on Monday and Channel 5 simply kept the promise. However, he did not hesitate to mention that it was an aide toYuliya's who had stated that she would only share the studio with the highest ranking official in the gas talks. (One queen, one castle.)

For a moment, the smell of disaster filled the air. Just a little trick by the host, and there she was: in a nasty ego trap, getting herself painted as a narcissistic prima donna. Yuliya made a faint attempt to regain her composure, saying that she valued Kseniya's contribution to small business development in Ukraine, but in order to have a real discussion of the gas issue she would prefer key figures involved. Anyway, “GI Julia” swallowed the bullet, and it showed.

But it didn't take long for her to recover. Being a skilled and seasoned fighter, she dusted herself off and staged a counteroffensive. She scalped the agreement's Byzantine wording and tackled the crux of the matter. Paraphrased, her arsenal of arguments appeared as follows:

1. The deal stipulates that the $95/230 per 1000 cubic meters rate paid by Ukraine can only be changed subject to mutual agreement. However, it also makes clear that the $95/230 rate holds for a mere 6 months in the year 2006, set to fluctuate later on based on market conditions. This caveat translates into a time bomb of sorts. Should gas prices rise in summer, Russia has the full right to drag Ukraine back to the negotiation table. (What a hot July!) At the same time, Ukraine has kindly agreed that the transit fee will be $1.6 per 100 km, effective until 2011. No caveats here.
Bottom line: Rip-off. Russia has upward potential, Ukraine doesn’t.

2. Domiciled in Switzerland, RosUkrEnergo, the intermediary company responsible for producing the “cocktail” rate, fuels transparency concerns. Observers have long referred to it as a secret old boys’ club, in which the Kremlin and members of Ukraine’s former administration have a stake. Some even trace it to Semion Mogilevich, a mystery of a man wanted by the FBI for racketeering, securities fraud, and money laundering. Legend has it he made his fortune as a Soviet mafia boss of global scope. After the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian intelligence service thoroughly probed RosUkrEnergo. Then-SBU Director Oleksander Turchynov, a Tymoshenko confidant, briefed the President on the probe, but the President chose no specific course of action. Back in the late 90s, Bill Gates proclaimed, “If you’re not on the Internet, you don’t exist.” As of today, Google yields no immediate web site results for RosUkrEnergo. (Welcome to a billion-dollar company that doesn’t have a corporate web site.)
Bottom line: Rejoice! If you're not on the Internet, you still can make a few bucks and get away with it.

3. According to the deal, Russia effectively absorbs Ukraine’s contract with Turkmenistan as well as would-be contracts with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, establishing itself as a monopoly in the Ukrainian market. In what looks like a déjà vu of the roaring 90s, the feeding tube of Ukraine’s economy is left at Russia’s mercy. The matrix reloads.
Bottom line: Way too heavy a price to pay for compromise.

Among viewers who have been following Yuliya chapter and verse, these gloomy conclusions clearly earned Naftogaz a black eye. Circling around the RosUkrEnergo issue, she emphasized that energy contractors should be selected in open tender bids, not backstage arrangements.

In his retaliatory remarks, Naftogaz CEO Ivchenko emphasized the “mutual agreement” clause, saying it was the best deal Ukraine could get. He then proceeded to rain on Yuliya’s parade, accusing her of lobbyism for Itera, the energy intermediary Ukraine had worked with a few years ago. Displaying signs of unease, Yuliya chose not comment on the double standard charge. (Interestingly enough, Itera’s web site does exist on the Internet.) Instead, she reiterated that as Prime Minister she had been committed to the open tender principle in awarding energy contracts. Following her cabinet’s dismissal, she has publicly agonized over a presidential directive that, as she said, tied her hands with regard to the energy sector.

Somewhere in that nuclear duel, Roman, the agent provocateur host of the show, took Yuliya on by asking her upfront whether she had a political axe to grind in the gas dispute. That question obviously caught her off guard. The shock and awe that crossed Yuliya’s face for a split second indicated that Roman hit the right chord.

Yuliya switched gears and made Stockholm her destination. She maintained that Ukraine had a valid contract with Russia set to expire in 2009, and should Ukraine sue for breach of contract, it stood every chance to win. Her parting shot for Ivchenko, whose Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists Party had been headed by the late Yaroslava Stetsko, the widow of the legendary commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army: If that wise lady were alive today, she would be very upset by his betrayal of Ukraine’s interests in the gas talks. (The Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists Party has allied itself with Nasha Ukraina.)

As the show was nearing the end, Kseniya Lyapina, who had maintained a low profile, confined to her “separate but equal” videoconference mode, spoke up. She apparently thrived on her “second-class” studio citizenship, unwilling to get into a fish fight with star performer Yuliya Tymoshenko. Kseniya assumed a positive thinker role, praising Yuliya's “barter buster” record and claiming that the deal did just that — put the barter scheme of all times out of business. When Yuliya asked Kseniya if she considered RosUkrEnergo a transparent business, Kseniya had a hard time trying to find a politically correct answer.

All in all, the show was fun. The bedrock of democracy is an informed citizenry. And the more diverse the points of view, the broader the vision. Many would agree that the deal Ukraine has signed offers a mixed blessing. Besides the already mentioned faults, it has a dangerous loophole, which entails a change of venue from Stockholm to Moscow, a number of legal experts maintain. Because no court of arbitration was spelled out, should any disputes arise, by default, they will be litigated in Moscow, hardly an impartial jurisdiction.

Still, it's not the worst of deals. When Russia picks its battles in winter, it rarely loses any. Faced with sharp supply shortages, the initially empathetic Europe would have probably turned a cold shoulder on Ukraine, had its government engaged in a protracted court battle with an uncertain outcome. What could be a better prize for the Kremlin than having Ukraine worsen its relations with the EU amid parliamentary elections? The wake up call has arrived: Ukraine must pay its way and modernize. As the Ukrainians hear both sides of the story and read between the lines, they will get it right.

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